"Character is the one thing we make in this world and take with us into the next."
- - Ezra Taft Benson
December 5, 2012
Books and Music that Invite Christmas Spirit
by Laurie Williams Sowby

The Tabernacle Choir and Orchestra at Temple Square continue the tradition of releasing last year’s Christmas concert on DVD and CD in time for this year’s giving.

The release of 2011’s Once Upon a Christmas, featuring the engaging voice of English actress Jane Seymour and the powerful baritone of Nathan Gunn, comes with a couple of bonuses: Seymour’s lyrical reading of “Good King Wenceslas” as a separate track on the album, and an illustrated book with both the printed story and a DVD of Seymour’s reading it (Deseret Book, DVD $24.98, CD $18.98, book $21.99).

The music spans the centuries, from the 1328 “In Dulci Jubilo” and selections from Bach’s Christmas Oratorio to 1931’s “Winter Wonderland” and 1942’s “’Twas the Night Before Christmas.” Selections range from Gunn’s operatic solos and lighthearted “’Twas the Night Before Christmas to the traditional “Angels, from the Realms of Glory,” done up in grand form with full choir and orchestra. Seymour also lends her voice to the Biblical Christmas story.

The DVD adds visual interest with full concert setting, dancers, and close-ups, and the book – written by David T. Warner and colorfully illustrated by Omar Rayyan – can be read to Seymour’s voice on the included CD. There’s a generous 81 minutes for the DVD and more than 71 minutes on the CD’s 15 tracks.

Aficionados of Handel’s Messiah will appreciate its “back story” skillfully told by playwright and theater professor Tim Slover in another book with CD combo, Messiah: The Little-Known Story of Handel’s Beloved Oratorio (Silverleaf Press, $19.99).

As one who sang Messiah every December for nearly three decades, I enjoy such insights into this timeless and meaningful work. The 72 small pages are a relative quick read. A real bonus is a digitally re-mastered CD of the Tabernacle Choir’s 1995 recording of Messiah, with Sir David Willcocks conducting.

Slover draws the reader in with a present-tense anticipation of the oratorio’s London debut at Covent Garden in 1743, then backtracks to tell the story of not just the composer but also some other key players in its history, notably Susanna Cibber, a “fallen” woman whose disgrace was overcome by her contralto solos when Messiah premiered in Ireland and London.

Slover’s story of redemption premiered a few years ago on the BYU stage as Joyful Noise and re-appears here in altered form, but the historical research behind both is substantial. (The book/CD combo is available at half the cover price in discount stores, making it a great deal.)

Jenny Oaks Baker’s Noel: Carols of Christmas Past (Shadow Mountain) is a comparatively lightweight offering with a scant 10 selections running less than 45 minutes — a little disappointing considering the $16.98 price tag.

Arranged by Kurt Bestor, the music is reminiscent of (and sometimes borrowed directly from) selections on his own albums that have been around for a couple of decades now. It’s kind of an uneven collection as well. The Celtic instrumentation may appeal to some, but “Patapan” is my least favorite piece here.

There’s a lyrical “In the Bleak Midwinter” for piano/violin, a rollicking “Ding Dong Merrily on High,” a hauntingly lovely “Wexford Carol” featuring Jenny Frogley’s vocals, and an ebullient, fully-orchestrated “Carol of the Bells” as the album’s finale.

For timeless appeal, though, I think I’ll opt to stick with my old, original Airus Christmas and Mannheim Steamroller albums while I’m decorating the tree.

Who could argue that President Thomas S. Monson is a good storyteller? You can almost hear his voice in The Christmas Train (Shadow Mountain, $18.99 in hardcover), a true story.

Against the backdrop of Dan Burr’s full-page illustrations, President Monson tells about the electric train he got for Christmas, the wind-up train his mother got for the boy down the street, and an important lesson he learned about giving.

Other people who are smarter than I am can follow along and actually hear President Monson read the story in his own voice when they purchase The Christmas Train from the App store ($4.99); kids are sure to enjoy the sound effects and interactive animations.

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About Laurie Williams Sowby

Laurie Williams Sowby has been writing since second grade and getting paid for it since high school. Her byline ("all three names, please") has appeared on more than 6,000 freelance articles published in newspapers, magazines, and online.

A graduate of BYU and a writing instructor at Utah Valley University for many years, she proudly claims all five children and their spouses as college grads.

She and husband, Steve, have served three full-time missions together, beginning in 2005 in Chile, followed by Washington D.C. South, then Washington D.C. North, both times as young adult Institute teachers. They are currently serving in the New York Office of Public and International Affairs

During her years of missionary service, Laurie has continued to write about significant Church events, including the rededication of the Santiago Temple by President Hinckley and the groundbreaking for the Philadelphia Temple by President Eyring. She also was a Church Service Missionary, working as a news editor at Church Magazines, between full-time missions.

Laurie has traveled to all 50 states and at least 45 countries (so far). While home is American Fork, Utah, Lincoln Center and the Metropolitan Museum of Art have provided a comfortable second home.

Laurie is currently serving a fourth full-time mission with her husband in the New York Office of Public and International Affairs. The two previously served with a branch presidency at the Provo Missionary Training Center. The oldest of 18 grandchildren have been called to serve missions in New Hampshire and Brisbane, Australia.

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